In 1989, Jerry Seinfeld, a stand-up who could turn mundane observations into nightclub gold, and Larry David, a cantankerous comedy writer coming off a failed stint at “Saturday Night Live,” developed an idea for a TV show.
But the pilot for “The Seinfeld Chronicles” bombed when NBC tested it with audiences.
The network told the producers what was missing. The sitcom, as devised by the duo, centered around the daily travails of three guys on New York’s Upper West Side.
“We said, ‘You have to add a girl,’ ” remembers Warren Littlefield, then a key executive at NBC. “We’re not going to tell you a lot, but add a woman.”
So Jerry, George and Kramer got Elaine Benes, a combative, curly-haired serial dater who could give as good as she got. And thus was born the legend of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who would become one of the greatest sitcom stars in modern television history.
On Sunday, Louis-Dreyfus will receive this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the Kennedy Center. Since 1998, the Twain Prize has been awarded to writers, stand-ups, and talk show hosts. There have been other television revolutionaries — Lorne Michaels, Carol Burnett, David Letterman — but, as she films the seventh and final season of HBO’s “Veep,” Louis-Dreyfus’s success is unprecedented. From “Seinfeld” to “The New Adventures of Old Christine” to her remarkable portrayal of Vice President Selina Meyer, Louis-Dreyfus has earned 11 Emmys, including six in a row. The reason she didn’t win again last month is probably because she wasn’t eligible. “Veep” had always planned to begin airing its final season after the 2018 qualifying date.
What’s more, the comedian’s influence stretches beyond the screen. Long before #TimesUp, she pushed hard for creative control in a male-dominated industry, particularly by fighting for production credit. In that way, Louis-Dreyfus has served as a model for the wave of talented women who emerged over the past decade-plus, including Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Poehler.
“Julia was always just really funny, and that inspired me, her straight-up talent and timing and the way she performs,” says Poehler, who followed her own SNL tenure by producing and starring in “Parks and Recreation.” “But also what I like is that she feels like a person who was also in control and has a voice and uses it.”
Even if Louis-Dreyfus didn’t create “Seinfeld,” her nine seasons on the hit established a new kind of sitcom actress on a new kind of sitcom. Post-Lucille Ball, prime time was packed with airheaded babes (Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeanie” or Suzanne Somers on “Three’s Company”) or matronly voices-of-reason (Marion Ross on “Happy Days”). Roseanne Barr brought a lunch-pail weariness to television, and Mary Tyler Moore managed to be both independent and sharp. But Elaine and Selina were nothing like Mary. They could be as shallow, nasty and dysfunctional as the guys sitting around Jerry’s apartment, as profane and blue as the potty-mouthed male politicians making backroom deals.
“Someone with her intelligence level, matched with an incredibly juvenile infantilism, when those two things come together well, that’s comedy magic,” Seinfeld says.
On a warm day in September, Louis-Dreyfus, 57, arrives for a lunch interview at a restaurant in the hills of Santa Barbara, Calif. She and her husband, writer and producer Brad Hall, have a house nearby. In person, Louis-Dreyfus is low-key, in jeans, her hair pulled back, recognizable but understated.
It is a busy moment. “Veep” is filming, and Louis-Dreyfus is just starting to feel as though she’s back at full strength. That’s no small thing.
Her surreal nightmare began on a Friday in September 2017. That day, Louis-Dreyfus had a biopsy. On Sunday, she was awarded her latest Emmy for playing Selina. And on Monday morning, the results came back. Stage 2 breast cancer. There would be chemotherapy treatments and surgery. The final season of “Veep” would have to wait.
“Originally, I had this idea, well, we’ll shoot in between my chemo treatments,” she said. “We could do that. Chemotherapy. What? That’s what sick people get. The whole thing was so astounding. I thought I could muscle through it, and to a certain extent, I did, because we did have table reads of scripts every three weeks. But I got really ill, so I couldn’t have ever shot anything during that period of time.”
Did getting sick change her perspective on life?
“You know what, I can’t quite answer that, because I feel like I’m still a little bit in the throes of it,” Louis-Dreyfus says. “Except what I would say about the fragility of life, as tropey as that sounds — I really do feel like, I guess people die. You go through life not considering the eventual reality that you’re going to bite the dust, and so is everybody around you.”
“You’re 47?” she asks.
“So with any luck, you’ll live another 40 years. Sorry to have to tell you.”
Was there ever any thought of just stepping away? Or not coming back to “Veep.”
“Oh, no,” she says.
“I love making people laugh, and I love making people cry even, and I find the pursuit of a truthful performance to be deeply satisfying to my core,” Louis-Dreyfus says.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus remembers first taking the stage in fourth grade.
“I was in some silly show, and I was supposed to faint. I was a queen, and it wasn’t meant to be funny, but I fainted, and everybody laughed, and I remember thinking, ‘I didn’t know why they laughed but I liked how they laughed,’ ” she says.
Judith and Gérard Louis-Dreyfus divorced when their daughter was just 3, so Julia spent much of her childhood shuttling between her father, who lived in New York, and her mother, who lived in the District. And in that neighborhood, just a skip from American University, Louis-Dreyfus and her friends organized their own theater group. They called themselves the University Players — named after their street — and would often perform in Louis-Dreyfus’s basement.
The group included next-door neighbor Margaret Edson, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999 for her play “Wit.”
“We just lost ourselves in these improvised plays and the performances,” Edson says. “We had a game called town, and it would all be people in the town, and we had an inside game called office, and it would be people in the office, and we would just stay in it for hours, and I think it’s just because she was so good.”
In 1979, Louis-Dreyfus enrolled at Northwestern University in Chicago and immediately began auditioning. She was cast as a freshman in the comedy revue “The Mee-Ow Show.”
Gary Kroeger, an older student and performer, remembers seeing the performance.
“She was the most organically talented person I’d ever seen onstage,” he says. “She was just magical in how she could go in and out of characters, and her timing was like nothing I’d ever seen.”
At Northwestern, Louis-Dreyfus met Hall, who was three years older and had quit school to help found the Practical Theatre Company. In summer 1982, in a 150-seat space in Chicago’s Piper Alley, she, Hall, Kroeger and Paul Barrosse, who also founded the company, put on “The Golden 50th Anniversary Jubilee.” It was popular, and word traveled east. Dick Ebersol, back at NBC to run “Saturday Night Live” during Lorne Michaels’s hiatus, came one night with head writer Bob Tischler.
“We were just blown away,” Ebersol remembers. “There aren’t that many opportunities in the comedy business to find anybody that funny or, in her case, that beautiful. She was just brimming with potential.”
He hired away the four Practical Theatre players. Instead of starting her senior year, the 21-year-old Louis-Dreyfus headed to New York to become part of an SNL cast led by Eddie Murphy.
What Ebersol saw immediately is a quality hard to describe but easy to identify. It’s a trait that Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith and Cary Grant possessed. Poehler and Tom Hanks have it, as well. Louis-Dreyfus can play vastly different characters, sink deeply into a role, and yet the viewer doesn’t completely forget who she is. That’s part of why her characters feel so true, even when their actions are so outrageous.
“She approaches things from a very organic, honest, Julia place first,” Hall says. “She’s not going to do things on screen to get laughs that aren’t based somewhere in her personality or her fantasy personality of herself. As she’s accumulated work, she’s gotten more and more confident in beginning to play things that are closer and closer to herself, so she’s able to be very believable and yet really, really funny, because she’s got the confidence to take the chances that are necessary to make choices that are funny.”
That “Julia place” begins with her likability. That protects her characters, even when they’re on their worst behavior.
“There is something about Julia’s innate sort of niceness,” says David Mandel, Veep’s showrunner and executive producer. “Women like her. Men like her. On ‘Veep,’ we use it to let her do really horrible things. When people tell me that they wish Selina was president, that’s not what they mean. They wish Julia Louis-Dreyfus was president.”
The timing. The laugh. The willingness to go deeply blue if it will make the comedy work. There are the elements that make Louis-Dreyfus, as her friend Larry David says, “a natural.”
“She’s born with it,” he says. “If she was a basketball player, she’d have a million moves.”
There is something else Poehler likes to mention. Stars can be difficult, picky, lone wolves who need to be coaxed into doing anything unconventional. Louis-Dreyfus is what Poehler calls a “gamer.” She always wants to be part of the joke, whether it’s a sketch, a prank or even a funny bit at an award ceremony. Poehler saw that playfulness at SNL when Louis-Dreyfus came back to host in 2006 and 2007.
She also showed it by signing on, in 2015, for the “Last F---able Day” sketch on Comedy Central’s “Inside Amy Schumer.” The bitingly sarcastic piece featured Fey and actress Patricia Arquette holding a “celebration” to mark the moment Louis-Dreyfus became too old for Hollywood to recognize her as a sexual object. Other stars had turned down Schumer’s sketch, presumably sensitive to how close to the bone it hit. Louis-Dreyfus was game.
“You meet somebody, and they’re kind of down for the fun or they’re not,” Poehler says. “Whether it’d be me being like, ‘Do you mind if I do this bit when I present this award’ or ‘Can we think of something for here.’ Yeah, sure. The idea that nothing has to feel too precious keeps her loose, and I think it’s what people feel from her.”
Success did not come easily.
At SNL, where Louis-Dreyfus was a cast member from 1982 to 1985, she rates her work as “horrendous.”
“Nothing I did was good,” she says.
That is an exaggeration. During her tenure, Louis-Dreyfus was often on the air, whether playing bit parts, grumpy teen news commentator Patti Lynn Hunnsucker or reviving her Northwestern-born televangelist April May June. Her most memorable turn may have come with Kroeger when they played an incestuous version of Donny and Marie Osmond.
But the atmosphere at SNL during those years was toxic, particularly for a woman, she says. When Louis-Dreyfus thinks of those years, she can still feel the bad vibes from the very first time she went to a table read.
Ebersol, excited to show off his new find, asked the Northwestern kids to perform excerpts from “Jubilee” to a room packed with cast members, writers and producers.
“Sagebrush,” she says. “A disaster.”
“They’re sitting there watching this cabaret show right after lunch, and you could just see on their faces, literally,” Kroeger remembers. “What has happened, why are these people here, this is the new cast? This is the new Chevy Chase, the new Dan Aykroyd, the new Gilda Radner? Are you kidding me?”
“It was like being told, ‘you’re going to see the greatest thing ever,’ ” remembers former SNL writer Barry Blaustein, who was there. “It was set up to fail.”
Even if Louis-Dreyfus felt stifled at SNL, her time there would change her career.
She met Larry David at SNL, as he fumbled through a season in which only one of his sketches made it on air. She also made herself an important pledge. Louis-Dreyfus would never work on a miserable set again. As she got more clout and began to produce, that became a defining characteristic of her shows.
“Number one on the daily call sheet sets the tone for the entire set,” says Andy Richter, the “Conan” show sidekick who played “Sad Dad” Stan on “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” the CBS sitcom that ran from 2006 to 2010. “And she is the best number one on the call sheet I have ever worked with, or for. Completely approachable, completely collaborative, warm, friendly, funny, everything you could possibly want your Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be.”
If she was underutilized on SNL, what came next would seem stunning.
In 1987, Louis-Dreyfus was cast in a small role for a pilot, “The Art of Being Nick.” That the show centered around Scott Valentine, who played Mallory Keaton’s curly-haired meathead boyfriend on “Family Ties,” did not seem to bother NBC’s powerful head of entertainment, Brandon Tartikoff. His issue: Louis-Dreyfus. He told NBC casting director Joel Thurm to deliver the news.
“We’ve got to do better than this,’ ” “Nick” director Sam Weisman remembers Thurm telling him. “ ‘She’s really short; she’s not hot. We really want somebody hot for this.’ ”
Weisman and producer Gary David Goldberg refused to budge. They knew Tartikoff was wrong. And when “Nick” didn’t get picked up, Goldberg cast her as the caustic next-door neighbor on the bland sitcom “Day by Day.” It ran for two seasons, until it was canceled in 1989.
“The only reason there was a sparkle in “Day by Day” was because of Julia,” Warren Littlefield says today.
“So, when Seinfeld came around, we were huge Julia fans,” says Lori Openden, who had taken over for Thurm as the network’s head of casting. “In all my time there, that was one of the easiest casting fits.”
“Seinfeld” may have made her a star, but “Veep” gave Louis-Dreyfus a chance for a tour-de-force. If she could get the gig. She remembers meeting the show’s director, Armando Iannucci, late in 2010 at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles.
“This is going to sound strange but it sounded like really ripe, low-hanging fruit that no one had tried to pick,’ Louis-Dreyfus says. “Of course, a female vice president. It’s a perfect metaphor for being a woman and for ambition and everything. It’s conflict built in, and it’s ideal comedically. I couldn’t believe it. I met with Arm, and I thought, ‘Jesus Christ, I really hope I get this.’”
Iannucci knew Louis-Dreyfus was funny. What he didn’t realize, until that day, is her personal connection to the part. That she had grown up in D.C. meant she understood that world. That she had spent years as a public figure also helped.
“Knowing what it’s like going into a room, and people are looking at you, and you have to keep smiling even though you have a raging head ache,” Iannucci says. “Having to maintain that air of keeping your [stuff] together. Primarily, it’s a comic instinct. We found this out when we started rehearsing. We’d have a little idea, and she would always have half a dozen suggestions of which way that could go.”
The action in “Veep” is fast, peppered with profanity, sight gags, misunderstandings and slights. There are moments that demand the acting chops you’d find in a serious drama. Nobody can ping-pong better between emotions than Louis-Dreyfus, from bitter frustration to beaming smiles.
But Iannucci, who left the show after its fourth season, remembers one of his own favorite moments, when everything seemed to slow down. It came during the second episode of the first season, when President Hughes has a health scare, and Selina is briefly put in charge.
“In the stage direction, it says, ‘Selina gives a noise that simultaneously is a groan and a smile, concerned and happiness at the same time,’ ” Iannucci says. “And she did it. Take one. It’s the emotional version of a chord, there are five or six notes going on simultaneously. That’s when you realize she’s utterly in a league of her own.”
The Twain presentation will be broadcast Nov. 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS.